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How is brain activity related to wellbeing?

The brain is involved in our mental wellbeing – we know this much. But how? PhD student Miranda Chilver together with her supervisor Dr Justine Gatt and colleagues have recently published a study called “Electroencephalography profiles are a biomarker of wellbeing: “A twin study” in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, which specifically explores how electrical brain activity is associated with mental wellbeing.

Electroencephalography, better known as EEG, is a tool used to non-invasively measure electrical potentials from the surface of the scalp. The measured activity reflects the combined signal of millions of brain cells, and can provide insight into what is happening in the brain. When many cells are activated at one time, this can be measured in terms of total “amplitude”, and different frequencies of activity reflect different underlying processes.

Despite the decades of EEG research, there are still many unknowns in terms of how this activity relates to mental health. Are there particular patterns of activity that are needed for healthy functioning? This was one of our research aims to test.

This study was conducted using a sub-sample of twins who were recruited for the TWIN-E study of wellbeing, coordinated by Senior Scientist Dr Justine Gatt and colleagues. In total, 422 twins had their EEG measured while relaxing in a chair with their eyes closed. These participants also completed the COMPAS-W questionnaire designed to measure different aspects of wellbeing, such as life satisfaction, positivity, and sense of fulfilment.

Our study results suggested that a pattern of high EEG alpha & delta activity combined with low EEG beta activity predicted the highest levels of wellbeing, while the opposite profile predicted the lowest levels. The results suggest that a specific profile of these EEG frequencies is associated with optimal mental health. In addition, twin models suggested that this link was primarily due to genetics – meaning that there is likely some overlap in the genes responsible for this EEG profile and wellbeing.

Future research will explore why these EEG frequencies are important, and whether EEG profiles are constant or if they change as wellbeing changes.

 

Miranda Chilver is a PhD student at NeuRA and UNSW.

Dr Justine Gatt is a senior researcher at NeuRA and UNSW.  For more information, please visit neura.edu.au/staff/dr-justine-m-gatt/

 

Study Reference:

Chilver MR, Keller AS, Park H, Jamshidi J, Montalto A, Schofield PR, Clark CR, Harmon-Jones E, Williams LM, Gatt JM. (2020). Electroencephalography profiles as a biomarker of wellbeing: A twin study. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 126: 114-121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2020.04.010